Best Five: James Kaplan on American Songwriters


1. “In 1926,” writes William McBrien, “Cole [Porter] told Richard Rodgers that in order to have successful songs, “I’ll write Jewish tunes.” Rodgers laughed but soon discovered that Porter, who had discovered a knack for composing soaring melodies, was serious. “Just hum. . . any of ‘Begin the Beguine’, ‘Love for Sale’ or ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, ”Rodgers wrote in his memoir. With his inherited millions, Porter could easily have lived a pampered life of idleness in Europe, which was more tolerant of homosexuality than the America of the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, he became the towering genius that he was. it was meant to be. McBrien’s well-argued, sympathetic but blunt biography captures all of the contradictions of this conceited, brilliant, and physically brave man who once said, “There must be an opulent audience for [my] brittle and bubbly songs and lyrics, most of them. . . be concerned with people who do smart and expensive things. But McBrien acquits Porter of superficiality: “No matter how smooth their plating is,” he writes, “Porter’s songs are almost always centered on the sweetness and brevity of love and happiness.

Chronicles: Vol. A

By Bob Dylan (2004)

2. “In the past,” writes Bob Dylan in this brilliant whirlwind of memories, “I had written and performed songs that were the most original and influential, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever do it again and I would do it again. I don’t care. The point of view is 1986 or 1987, when the future Nobel Laureate – our infinitely elusive bard-trickster – felt completely played out, empty, done. ‘history, “writes Mr. Dylan. His masterpieces had become foreign to him. Equally burdensome was his reputation as” the spokesperson, the spokesperson or even the conscience of a generation. “For 60 years, millions of people clung to each of his sphinx-like words. Rumors of a sequel to his autobiography have been bubbling up for a decade. Wisdom says: Don’t hold your breath. Or, as Mr. Dylan writes himself: “When will the elder return to him? When will the door open and the goose appear? P have today. “

Girls like us

By Sheila Weller (2008)

3. The subjects of Sheila Weller’s Triple Portrayal – Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon – all came of age in the 1960s, all are brilliant powerful writers and performers, and all have lived tumultuous lives. Ms King got rid of herself after separating from her collaborator and husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin; just like Mrs. Mitchell, after giving her baby girl up for adoption. Ms Simon transcended her past as a wealthy girl and survived an endlessly publicized marriage to James Taylor. It’s a big juicy book, but also deep. Ms. Weller’s eye for shade is sharp. It details each branch of each social network crossed by each woman. “You had to have a name for your life-with-life, so to cut against the elitist softness of the lifestyle, some gruff working-class terminology was appropriate: ‘my old man’, ‘my old lady’. “Have any of the three ever imagined getting old?” Ms Weller tells a heartbreaking story about Ms Simon, who developed breast cancer in her 50s. At the Carlyle Hotel bar, she meets her ex-lover, Warren Beatty, who asks her what’s bringing her to town. She has, she said, an appointment with her oncologist. He is retreating rapidly. Ms. Simon then put the incident in a song called “Scar”.

On the sunny side of the street

By Deborah Grace Winer (1997)

4. American Songbook lyricists have seldom received the respect they deserve: “No one whistles a word,” someone once remarked. Over a 50-year career, Dorothy Fields has co-wrote over 400 songs, many of which are enduring standards – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (all two with Jimmy McHugh) and the immortal “The Way You Look Tonight” (with Jerome Kern). “While Dorothy’s work was imbued with a distinctly feminine outlook on life,” writes Ms. Winer, “it was generally too ironic and too blunt to exude any of the ‘old-fashioned feminine’ qualities like sentimentality. … that were negatively associated with “women’s” designs. Fields led no such thing as a flamboyant show business life – she kept regular office hours and raised a family. And she wrote lines. who live. Witness his lyrics to “A Fine Romance” (music by Kern): “We should be like two hot tomatoes / But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” Nineteen years older young as the pixie and imperious Kern, Fields idolized the great composer, yet at 5’51/2 she towered over him and called him Junior, which he apparently had no objection to.

The cake and the rain

By Jimmy Webb (2017)

5. “This songwriting business is just going to break your heart,” Jimmy Webb’s Baptist preacher father warned at the age of 18. Five years later, at the 1969 Grammys, Mr. Webb won awards for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. They were surprisingly mature songs, harmonically complex and lyrically poetic. In a popular music landscape bombarded by rock ‘n’ roll, Mr. Webb was now a cultural hero, showered with superlatives and gold. The songwriting broke Mr. Webb’s heart, as this often self-wrenching memoir tells us. He was a round-faced, bespectacled kid from rural and famous Oklahoma. Celebrities wanted to be with him, give him things: money, sex, drugs. Lots of drugs. Too too soon is an old story, but Mr. Webb tells his story with humor and humor: “I was embarrassed and a little guilty,” he writes, “about the never-ending influx of cash. I deliberately disguised myself. Still, he drinks with Frank Sinatra; he meets Elvis Presley while on a mescaline trip; he hangs out with the Beatles while they record the white album. The book ends in 1973, with Mr. Webb barely surviving a drug overdose. For a while he truly believed he was a genius, he would say years later. Finally, he returns to the Christian faith of his youth and to a minimum of humility. Many have had worse.

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